Monday, June 30, 2008

Losing the Argument: Why the Democratic party is probably doomed

Elections are not simply about the raw numbers or even the shifting of legislatures. They often represent the public's perception of right and wrong - a national discourse on where the country is headed and whether it should stay on that path. The elections of 2006 was a victory more about the excesses of the former Congress rather than the arguments for the current one. A good portion of the public felt betrayed by the selling of the war-turned-occupation in Iraq, by rampant mismanagement of federal institutions (FEMA being the poster child), and of the corruption and fraudulence of the individual legislators. I would submit there was not a kind of national argument made by the Democrats that framed the election beyond. It was basically: we don't like these guys and we want someone else to do something different. This is the opposite of the other blow-out election of recent history, the Republican takeover of the legislature in the mid 90s. Here, there was a concerted argument made for a reorientation of the path the nation was taking. It didn't make this argument by itself, but was the result of deep resentment by both social and fiscal conservatives for more than a decade driven by not just one or two wedge issues but a complete ideology. And the Republicans didn't simply take these issues individuals, but as a total and (relatively) coherent vision. The evidence this represented a general shift to the right is not difficult to find. The same has not happened in 2006. There was no Contract With America, no grand vision. Or if there was, it has been utterly decimated by triangulated, tactical voting with no thought to a long term strategy. By voting record, there is very little to distinguish the Congress of 2006 from their predecessor on the topics that were at the forefront of the election: the war in Iraq, civil liberties, agency competence, and accountability of the Bush Administration. Nothing at all truly significant was done on these fronts. And the Democrats in 1994 were in a much more powerful position with a popular president (who regardless largely conformed to the ideology of the opposition). Large scale ideological movements are an extremely powerful force in history: the liberal revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries which created this country and profoundly changed others, the rise of Facism and Communism in the early 20th century, and at a national level, the rise of the modern American conservative movement. These powerful forces are founded on intellectual arguments that were extremely compelling in their own time and place - some continue to be so and others have been refuted with horrible loss of life and human dignity, but it would unwise to doubt their power. Democrats have not made an intellectual argument on this vein and their majority will be ephemeral if they do not. Their activities on basic issues that were provided as the reasoning to vote for them - checking executive power, the war, securing civil liberties, were not really pursued, much less some larger ideological goal. It has become simply the party of everyone who isn't a Republican for whatever reason. When the excesses and unpopularity of the current batch of Republicans is forgotten, they will still have an argument. Even a poor ideology trumps none at all. They could fix this by coming together and deciding why they are against the things the Republicans are for and visa-versa. Right now it is a mishmash which suggests they could change their tune at the drop of a hat (and judging by their voting records, they will). Republicans can rightly attack them as having no core principles or values because as a party they don't seem to. Don't believe me? Try a Google search of "democratic party mission statement". The whole first page is either local party offices with statements that mean nothing (the Maricopa County party's mission is just to get elected; okay guys, what then?). The actual party website is not much better, nothing in their "What we stand for" page is an argument - never is it explained why they believe what they do and what that means for policy. The RNC website is no better, but their ideological argument was really made here. The original contract is actually kind of interesting to read because the parts about government transparency are so completely counter to the current party's actions when it last had the majority it is quite stunning.

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